First we were refused admission to high school, then the role of young intellectuals was foisted on us on account of our parents being labelled "enemies in the people."
My parents were doctors. My father was a lung specialist, and my mother a consultant in parasitic diseases. Both of them worked at the hospital in Chengdu, a city of four million inhabitants. Their crime was that they were "stinking scientific authorities" who enjoyed a modest reputation on a provincial scale, Chengdu being the capital of Szechuan, a province with a population of one hundred million. Far away from Beijing but very close to Tibet.
Compared with my parents, Luo's father, a famous dentist whose name was known all over China, was a real celebrity. One day--this was before the Cultural Revolution--he mentioned to his students that he had fixed Mao Zedong's teeth as well as those of Madame Mao and Jiang Jieshi, who had been president of the Republic prior to the Communist takeover. There were those who, having contemplated Mao's portrait every day for years, had indeed noted that his teeth looked remarkably stained, not to say yellow, but no one said so out loud. And yet here was an eminent dentist stating publicly that the Great Helmsman of the Revolution had been fitted with new teeth, just like that. It was beyond belief, an unpardonable, insane crime, worse than revealing a secret of national security. His crime was all the more grave because he dared to mention the names of Mao and his consort in the same breath as that of the worst scum of the earth: Jiang Jieshi.
For many years Luo's family lived in the apartment next to ours, on the third and top floor of a brick building. He was the fifth son of his father, and the only child of his mother.
I am not exaggerating when I say that Luo was the best friend I ever had. We grew up together, we shared all sorts of experiences, often tough ones. We very rarely quarrelled.
I will never forget the one time we came to blows, or rather the time he hit me. It was in the summer of 1968. He was about fifteen, I had just turned fourteen. That afternoon a big political meeting was being held on the sports ground of the hospital where our parents worked. Both of us were aware that the butt of the rally would be Luo's father, that yet another public humiliation awaited him. When it was nearly five o'clock and no one had yet returned, Luo asked me to accompany him to the hospital.
"We'll note down everyone who denounces my father, or beats him," he said. "That way we can take our revenge when we're older."
The sports ground was a bobbing sea of dark heads. It was a very hot day. Loudspeakers blared. Luo's father was on his hands and knees in front of a grandstand. A great slab of cement hung round his neck from a wire so deeply embedded in the skin as to be invisible. Written on the slab were his name and his crime: reactionary.
Even from where I was standing, thirty metres away, I could make out a dark stain on the ground made by the sweat dripping from his brow.
A man's voice roared through the loudspeaker.
"Admit that you slept with the nurse!"
Luo's father hung his head, so low that his face seemed buried in the cement slab. A microphone was shoved under his mouth and a faint, tremulous "yes" was heard.
"Tell us what happened!" the inquisitor's voice barked from the loudspeaker. "Who started it?"
A few seconds of silence ensued. Then the whole crowd screamed in unison: "And then?"
This cry, raised by two thousand voices, was like the rumble of thunder breaking over our heads.
"I started it . . . ," Luo's father confessed.
"Go on! The details!"
"But as soon as I touched her, I fell . . . into mist and clouds."
We left as the crowd of fanatics resumed their mass inquisition. On the way home I suddenly felt tears running down my cheeks, and I realised how fond I was of the dentist.
Excerpted from Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie Copyright 2001 by Dai Sijie. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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